Amid Greek austerity, plunder of priceless treasures

By Theopi Skarlatos
BBC Fast Track, Athens

media captionChasing the Greek treasure thieves

The financial crisis in Greece has already had far-reaching consequences for many people, but now it is claiming a new casualty as some of the country's ancient treasures become a target for thieves.

Detective Gergios Tsoukalis puffs nervously on his cigar. In the passenger's seat of a taxi, he grapples with four different mobile phones as he tries to co-ordinate the arrest of yet another antiquities smuggler.

As the driver pulls into the port, he sees ahead of him that plainclothes police officers have already pounced on the unassuming man, who is completely shocked by the early-morning operation.

As he is being bundled into a van, one of the officers shouts at him: "How many of you are there? Don't mess me around. How many?"

Mr Tsoukalis is less concerned with the accused. He is following the trail of the treasure. He heads straight to the back of the suspect's vehicle and pulls out a bag to confirm that these are the stolen artefacts.

"These are them, here are the coins," he says with relief, immediately lighting up another cigar.

These moments are what the detective lives for.

Vulnerable artefacts

Hunting down illegal traders and saving timeless ancient objects does not just provide him with a rush of adrenaline or a satisfying buzz.

First and foremost, he does this job because he is Greek and cannot stand to see his country's most valuable and vulnerable artefacts in the wrong hands.

There has been a rise in the last three years in illegal trading. According to police reports, there has been a 30% increase since the crisis took hold in 2009.

Mr Tsoukalis believes the most popular buyers are Russians, Chinese and Latin Americans.

"In the last few years with the crisis, people who have reached their limits have become more easily tempted," he says.

"They are more likely to either sell antiquities in their possession or search for them in abandoned excavation sites, in order to sell what they find to dealers who take them abroad.

"We've tracked down ancient Greek antiquities as far away as Colombia - in the hands of drug dealers".

In February, he received a call from one man determined to do the right thing.

Yiannis Dendrinellis, from the coastal town of Derveni in Corinthia, came across what he has now been told could be the site of an ancient temple.

He found a bag left at the side of the road where someone had been digging.

"Inside there were some old coins and parts of small statues. You read stories about people finding treasure, but it can't be compared to finding it yourself with your own hands. It was amazing, just something else."

Yiannis will receive a small share of the value of his find because he contacted the authorities. He is still waiting to hear more about its worth.

Inadequate protection

image captionThere has been a 30% rise in illegal trading of antiquities since 2009

From the onset of the financial crisis in Greece, it became easier for people to steal and sell on artefacts because many sites, including those still being excavated are not adequately protected.

"Some islands only have one guard to protect and maintain all of the ancient sites," says Despina Koutsoumba, of the Association of Greek Archaeologists.

"How can he do his job properly? Things are being stolen all the time. Only recently a man was arrested and caught with a Macedonian tomb - and inside the entire warrior's outfit. We didn't even know it existed until the man who took it was arrested."

Her main worry is ensuring the maintenance and security of the already registered artefacts in Greece's museums.

In December 2012, the finance ministry took control of the archaeological fund containing all the profits from museum ticket sales - a budget of 2m euros (£1.72m).

"We have not seen this money since December last year and this money is needed to keep our museums running properly. Not only can we not afford toilet paper and petrol for our drivers, but we haven't been able to pay our electricity, water and phone bills, since last year.

"So you can imagine what this means for a museum, to be threatened and have its electricity cut off, what that means for its operations and what that means for its alarms," she said.

The Ministry of Culture stresses it is doing all it can to protect Greece's most important sites and museums.

image captionDespina Koutsoumba says museums cannot even afford toilet roll

Maria Vlazaki, General Director of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage says: "There are a lot of people employed to guard Greece's most important sites, but of course there are less than before.

"As there are fewer employees in all other sectors, we have the same problem with this one. But we have done all the work we can to protect our museums and archaeological sites and keep them safe. I know it is a difficult situation, but we try hard".

Last week the government secured another bailout instalment from the troika of international creditors, the EU, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and European Central Bank (ECB). In return, a further 25,000 public sector workers will be dismissed and all ministries will be affected.

Those working for the Ministry of Culture are waiting nervously to find out not only if their jobs will be protected, but also the ancient antiquities behind glass cases - and those yet to be discovered.

Fast Track can be seen on BBC World News at 03.30, 13.30 and 18.30 GMT on Saturdays and 06.30 GMT on Sundays.